The Taming of the Shrew (New Farm Nash Theatre)
The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church
May 13 – June 3
Nash Theatre’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is far from the controversial 16th century comedy of its source material. In this imagining, it is set in the Black Widows biker bar, still in Padua Italy (despite all the Bundaberg Rum bottles). Its initial scene gives nod to its setting though, through a musical introduction of the ‘Sicilian Heart’ sort, before Cutting Crew’s ‘I Just Died in Your Arms’ establishes a great story arch before taking audiences forward 20 years to the tale of bar-owner Baptista (Jennifer Morgan) and her very-different daughters, perfect Bianca (Kristina Nisova) and the older, flawed Katherina (Hannah Martin). The surplus of suitors for Bianca makes Baptista impose the condition that Katherina must be married before Bianca can be. And so begins a series of secret deals, assumed identities and unconventional courtship by the brash Petruchio as, following decision to marry based on his self-proclaimed desire for fortune, he attempts to tame the headstrong Katherine (the shrew of the title) into transformation through torment.
The cast is a large one, with 14 members, many assuming multiple roles. As the brash Petruchio of Verona, Isaac Barnes is an absolute standout; Shakespearean dialogue sits comfortably in his mouth and his spot-on interpretation engenders the show with bawdy humour and alike, befitting one of the most comprehensive of Shakespearean comedies. However the quality of his performance also serves to showcase the contrast with those whose delivery of laden lines is comparatively overworked and, as such, less engaging.
Although initially, Hannah Martin’s cursed Katherina is more moody teenager than feisty feminist, as in the Zeffirelli’s seminal 1967 film adaptation, the best scenes are those of Petruchio in interaction with the tempestuous Katherina after their first introduction. Kristina Nisova is solid as the unassuming Bianca, conveying a still-spirited character through flawless delivery of the Shakespearean dialogue and bringing a vitality to scenes with her courtly, romantic lover Lucentio (Matthew Steenson). And Chris Robins more than holds his own as Trainio, Lucentio’s loyal servant and mentor.
Regardless of its politics, this energetic production is highly entertaining and vitally inventive. As complement to the excellent design choices, music features to particular effect, with a soundtrack of rock chick icons like Suzi Quatro, Pat Benatar, and Blondie contributing much to the overall experience. Even the play’s lute player is transformed into a punk rocker of Ozzy Osbourne type. And gender blind casting works well in making a challenging play that serves as celebration of female subordination through the heroine’s submission to her husband’s tyranny, more palatable to modern audience tastes. Female characters are more active participants than passive victims and the choice to make the story just as much Baptista’s is ingenious once, fully appreciated after the twist in the tail of the final act.
As deliberate offset to the problematic gender politics, boisterous comedy abounds thoroughly, crescendoing in Petruchio and Katherina’s shambolic wedding (and not just because of its drunken horse as best man) shown on screen, making the production an equal treat for both those familiar to the ado of the story and those uninitiated to recognition of its Shakespearean motifs of mistaken identity and alike.
It is a long show that could perhaps have benefited from some abridgement, yet, still, Director Jason Nash should be commended for his insight into and engagement with the work and choice not to rely solely on physical comedy to realise the play’s humour. Rather than presenting patriarchy at its worst, this “The Taming of the Shrew” serves not only as a tribute to Shakespeare’s storytelling skills but also a homage to the wit of his words and proof that given the right context, his themes can continue to provide a relevant take on the world around us and the relationships within it.